Coming not long after Steve Uhlmann and Peter Lewis’ Marmalade Files and hot on the heels of Tony Jones’ The Twentieth Man, Michael Brissenden, another ABC journalist, has penned a thriller. The List seems designed with the tag “ripped from the headlines” in mind. It concerns itself with the repercussions of recent wars in the Middle East, the effect it has had both on soldiers and on the recruitment of young Muslims in Australia, and more broadly Australian religious tolerance and multicultural ideals in a world dominated by terrorism and a national security debate.
In the middle of this powderkeg is the Australian Federal Police’s K-unit, a bridge between the operations of that force and Australia’s security organisation ASIO. Sid Allen and his partner Haifa Harouni, are brought in when young radicalised Muslim men in Sydney are found dead and with their right arms cut off. This is just the first act in a much deeper plot that goes back to Afghanistan and turns into a race against time for the investigators.
As is usually the case with the thriller genre, both of the main characters have skin in the game. Sid’s girlfriend and former colleague Rosie was killed in Afghanistan in the ambush that opens the book and links to the action. Meanwhile, Haifa is trying to distance herself from her family, in particular her two much older brothers, both in prison, and her other brother Hakim who has become a Muslim community spokesperson. But she still maintains connection with her family and works with the community to try and counter the rising tide of extremism among its disaffected young people.
The subject matter of this thriller lends itself to exploration of issues around terrorism, tolerance and the role of politics and the media in manipulating or shaping public opinion. While some of this discussion is well integrated into the plot, there a little too much soap-boxing as characters give their opinion and a short, indulgent portrayal of a foul mouthed, unprincipled Prime Minister using fear of terrorism to his own ends.
Brissenden gives a good feel for the parts of Sydney that host the action in The List, including the changes in culture and attitude as characters travel from one area of Sydney to another. Haifa, in a finger to her family and traditions who still live in the mainly Muslim Western suburbs around Lakemba, has moved to predominantly white Cronulla in the south of Sydney. Meanwhile, Sid lives in trendy Surry Hills, walking distance to police headquarters.
In the end, a thriller stands and falls on the amount of tension that it generates and the rate at which the pages turn. And Brissenden does a pretty good job of raising the stakes for both the city and for his protagonists. But the problem is that the plot itself does not bear too much scrutiny and ends up feeling a little flimsy and obvious by the final showdown. There are a number of layers of plot here leading to some effective, if possibly predictable twists, but in the end the resolution is fairly straightforward and it is ultimately unclear what the terrorists were trying to achieve, or why they needed this particular plot to achieve their ends.
Despite any shortcomings, The List will definitely scratch the itch of the thriller-loving crowd. And it is great to see Sydney used so effectively as the backdrop given the majority of this type of thriller is set in the Northern Hemisphere. The List is another strong new Australian crime/thriller voice in a year that has already seen some great debuts.